The Digital Age (Part One)

The stories around Wikileaks over the last month or so and their implications have fascinated me for a number of reasons. But this post isn't about the contents of the leaked documents (which I'm ill-equipped to comment on– partly because I've read little of the leaked content, and partly because I don't understand enough of the politics that surrounds them.) Neither is it about Julian Assange, his character, his motives, or his website. (And it's definitely not about the incredibly complex and thorny issues surrounding his recent arrest and imprisonment, which we have very little reliable information about.)

I like to try to look for the "bigger picture" when a story about the internet catches my attention and to me, none of these are the real big story here. In fact, Wikileaks itself isn't really the big story. It is just a symptom of the sort of changes that are happening because of the internet; what is happening to the line between private and public, and how the way we communicate is changing. Because if the way we communicate, or how we share information with one another is changing, then it fundamentally changes who we are as individuals. And it isn't limited to the microscopic levels of society; if what we know and how we discuss it is changing, then in a democratic society it has a massive impact on the way we organise ourselves – our relationships with each other, with businesses and brands, with politicians and government, and with countries and nations.

To me, that's a very big story. Not a very headline friendly one, unfortunately – but a big one. The internet is changing everything from who we are as individuals, right through to the way global politics work, and what is happening right now with Wikileaks is just an artefact of these changes. In the last forty years, we have seen a cascade of technological innovation; the digital computer network in the 1960s, the personal computer in the 1970s, the TCP/IP technology that is the foundation of the internet in the 1980s, the world wide web in the 1990s, and the rise of home broadband and the mobile internet in the 2000s. What we haven't yet seen is the full impact that this technology will have as it becomes ever more deeply ingrained into our society.

About ten years ago, it looked like Napster was having a massive impact on the music industry. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that it wasn't about Shaun Fanning and his creation, but an inevitable aspect of the global network of computers, an industry transitioning from a physical product to a virtual and intangible one. Napster went away, but we had Kazaa, Gnutella, Soulseek, OiNK, Pirate Bay, Limewire, eDonkey – and I'm sure many more besides. My guess is that in another ten years time, we will be talking about Wikileaks in a similar way to Napster.

With the first generation of the web, we saw information being put on the internet where it could be read, linked and shared; people on the internet were talking to the world. The second generation involved the people on the internet talking to each other; the whole "Web 2.0" idea. As more people got involved, this hit a tipping point as it moved from a point where you would reasonably assume that your friends weren't online, to a point where you could assume that they were. To me, this marks a third generation; "social media", where the web started to reflect the real world and real life friendships and networks, rather than the parallel virtual world or the idea of a cyberspace with little to no real connection to our day to day life. That transition is the point where the decision you make as an individual isn't "why should I do this on the internet" to "why shouldn't I."

For me, this idea became clear around 2007, when Facebook appeared as a place where you could suddenly find your real-life friends on the internet. It seemed like suddenly, stuff was happening online that actually mattered in the real world. On a personal level – people were sharing information online that was important to me – whether it was hearing news about relationships or jobs from people before I had a chance to talk to them about it, or being able to see what was happening to people who I cared about but wasn't in touch with enough to follow their day-to-day activities. Hearing about friends from school who I last knew as teenagers who were now married with children, or following people as they entered relationships, got married and got pregnant.

Right now, it seems that anyone who doesn't have an internet connection at home, who doesn't have an email address, and who isn't on Facebook has made a conscious decision not to do so. (I know that this isn't necessarily the case - for example, for some older people, or people who can't afford to buy a computer and sign up to a ~£30 a month broadband connection - but I think it applies to a significant majority.)

So, are we now living in a "digital age"?

Well, I remember hearing a Brazilian friend in a discussion about English attitudes to food, and the idea that England has recently become a nation of 'foodies.' The argument goes that, although we have historically been famous as a nation for bad food, we now have enough Michelin-starred restaurants, pubs with good quality food, celebrity chefs and good quality recipe books in every kitchen to be able to dismiss this argument. His point was that our relationship with food isn't defined by our best restaurants and favourite recipes, but by what we will tolerate. So as long as, as a nation, we will pay money for food that isn't as good as something we would cook for ourselves at home, or we believe that buying a pre-prepared plastic-wrapped sandwich and eating it at our desk while we read a newspaper or surf the internet is something we can call "lunch" and do on a regular basis, then we cannot seriously call ourselves a nation of food-lovers. We might be heading in the right direction, but we aren't there yet.

So, some would say that we are now living in a digital age. I would argue that, in the same way that we haven't yet seen England transformed into a "foodie" nation, we are still a long way away from it. Because the full impact of what a 'digital age' means is still ahead of us, and Wikileaks is just an example of what is still to come.

Media, the Digital Age and the Global Village

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan talked about how the printing press and age of typography was coming to a close, to be replaced by "electronic communications." A well known idea (although not necessarily well understood) from his 1964 book "Understanding Media" was that the medium is the message. The point of the phrase was that the content of a medium – in terms of the impact that it had on society – was far less significant than the nature of the medium itself. What we see on TV is one thing – it might influence anything from our small talk the next day to the way we vote in elections – but the presence of the TV set in our living room with our furniture arranged around it shapes the way most of us spend the majority of our evenings.

At the time that McLuhan was writing about the power of 'electronic communications', they were all about recorded sound and film. The telegraph and telephone were relatively well established, but the broadcast transmissions of radio and television were exploding.

What we now see as the real revolution of 'electronics' had not yet happened; Paul Baran was arguing the case for building the first digital computer networks, the network of computer networks that we know as "the internet" was still over twenty years away, and the first proposal for the World Wide Web of networked information was about three decades away. But while the eventual nature of "electronic communication" would have been difficult for McLuhan to understand at the time, his understanding of the principles of how it would affect the world are truly remarkable.

But if the medium is more important than the content it holds, then I think "digital" would be a better term than "electronic" to describe the communications age we are now entering. Because one of the key characteristics of "digital" is that it is a format designed to be perfectly copied, again and again. The web page in your browser is a perfect copy of the web page sent by the server; there is almost no danger that if you copy a chunk of that text and paste it into an email, a word processor or a blog post, that the content will be degraded. (This is quite unlike the printing press; the title of McLuhan's 1967 book "The Medium is the Massage" was a printing error which he felt summed up the point exactly, being a mistake that was unique to typography, and impossible to make in any other medium.) By holding a copy of a web page of information on a server, you can send thousands – even millions– of copies around the world with virtually no effort. And with peer-to-peer filesharing technology, you don't even need to maintain a server to have millions of perfect copies of your work created and distributed around the world.

So the internet is transforming and amplifying what "public" means on several levels. Whether it is the global reach of a major website that means the latest editorial in The Guardian can be read as easily in the US as the UK (and without waiting for it to be printed and carried from the press to the newsagent), or the way a US reader can comment on the story and have their opinion read within moments by a UK reader, or the way anyone (for free) use a service like Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress or Blogger and be capable of reaching a large, global audience, the Internet is bringing people together in new ways that were impossible in a pre-electronic era. This is creating what McLuhan called a global village, where everyone is everyone else's virtual neighbour; we can see what is happening across the world almost as easily as we can see video from across the road.

But while the nations eyes can easily be collectively turned onto the live broadcast of a celebrity game show, they can just as easily turn to footage of student demonstrations in London, or an environmental disaster in the Pacific. Since the advent of the newspaper, we could easily read about global events – or at least, those that the newspaper editor thought was important. Since radio, we could hear about them, and since television we could watch them – again, provided the producer could (and wanted to) record the events and show them to us. On a purely visceral level, seeing and hearing something provokes a different emotional reaction to reading someone else's account (and interpretation) of the same events. But when we choose to pay attention to something, without the editorial limitations imposed by the space on the page or the airtime allocated to the particular spot, our attention is focussed in a way that was previously impossible.

Although the term "the global village" is often heard describing the benefits of this networked society, McLuhan didn't see it as such, warning that changes were afoot that we were not adequately prepared for, and that unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and super-imposed co-existence.

To return to the idea that "the medium is the message", perhaps the "War on Terror" wasn't brought about so much by what happened in New York on September 11th 2001 as by the live TV footage broadcast across the world, and the radio bulletins, text messages and emails that told us to stop what we were doing and watch what was happening on the TV right now. Apparently, everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news that JFK had been shot. But on September 11th, what we remember isn't hearing the news, but seeing it happen in front of our eyes on live television, and then afterwards watching the videos replayed, seeing the photos and reading about it in the newspapers, as we hoped that our media's running commentary would somehow make sense of it all.

Partly as a result of the attack and the US State Department's measures to ensure that security intelligence information could be shared more effectively between relevant people, a network called <abbr="Secret Internet Protocol Network">SIPRNet was used across the world by US agencies. And it's from this network that a quarter of a million diplomatic cables were leaked to Wikileaks, and are now in the process of being made public.

Part 2 of this post on The Digital Age will talk about the new role of news organisations for the new global public, and how the identity and role of 'the nation' is changing.